Arkansas Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists
The Arkansas Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists is an affiliate of the national Society of Professional Journalists, whose mission statement states that it is “dedicated to the perpetuation of a free press as the cornerstone of our nation and our liberty.” The national chapter was founded in 1909 as a journalistic fraternity known as Sigma Delta Chi. It was renamed the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) in 1988.
The state chapter was chartered on December 15, 1961, as the Little Rock Professional Chapter of Sigma Delta Chi. Its fourteen charter members included J. N. Heiskell, publisher of the Arkansas Gazette, and Ernie Deane, who was known for his “Arkansas Traveler” column in the Gazette and later became a journalism professor at the University of Arkansas (UA) at Fayetteville (Washington County).
From 1967 to 1999, the state SPJ chapter presented the biennial Farkleberry Follies, a highly popular musical theater spoof of Arkansas newsmakers, the profits of which went to finance college scholarships. The Follies’ name was associated with Governor Orval Faubus and Arkansas Gazette cartoonist George Fisher, whose depictions of Faubus often included a leafless farkleberry tree, a reference to a reputedly staged event in which the governor led a highway crew in clearing roadside underbrush, instructing them to save ornamental trees. At a national conference in 1996 in Washington DC, the state chapter received SPJ’s Circle of Excellence Award for Large Chapters in the category of campus relations based on its contributions to promoting journalism at the high school and college levels. Having raised more than $125,000 over the years, the Follies ended after its 1999 run because its longtime director, Leroy Donald, was in failing health and no one else was willing to take on the task, which required months of preparation.
The Arkansas Pro Chapter board includes a president, a vice president, a treasurer, a secretary, and seven board members. Its committees focus on contests, programming, the Freedom of Information Act, membership, and other specially designated focus areas. Chapter membership is open to all who are in good standing with SPJ national, which includes those who are students, educators, freelancers, and media professionals in radio, TV, print, and multimedia journalism.
Throughout the year, the chapter presents programming centered on diversity, ethics, professional development, and the Freedom of Information Act (the chapter also has representation on the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act Task Force, which evaluates and recommends any changes to the Freedom of Information Act of 1967). In September 2016, the chapter was a partner in presenting a “#BlackLivesMatter in the Media” panel, which featured local, regional, and national activists including Shaun King. The Arkansas Pro Chapter also worked in partnership with the Islamic Center of Little Rock to hold a discussion called “Journalism & Islam: Halal Food for Thought” on how Muslims are portrayed in the media. In 2017, SPJ named the Arkansas Pro Chapter a winner of the Circle of Excellence Award for a small chapter (fewer than seventy-five members) in the area of diversity. Other chapter events have focused on topics such as law, math for journalists, social media, and obituary writing.
One of the chapter’s earliest members was Robert S. (Bob) McCord of North Little Rock (Pulaski County), known as the father of the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act, which the Arkansas General Assembly approved in 1967. McCord went on to become SPJ’s national president in 1975–76. After McCord’s death in 2013, the chapter established the Robert S. McCord Memorial Freedom of Information Act Award, which is given each year to an Arkansas journalist who exemplifies his ideals. Another chapter luminary is Charlotte Schexnayder of Dumas (Desha County), who became the chapter’s first female president in 1973. She was also the first woman to serve as president of the Arkansas Press Association and the National Newspaper Association.
The Arkansas Pro Chapter is a member of SPJ’s Region 12. Previous regional directors from the chapter include Meredith Oakley of the Arkansas Democrat (1987–1991), Keith Inman of Mountain View Broadcasting (1995–1997), Sonny Albarado of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (2006–2010), and Kelly Kissel of the Associated Press (beginning in 2017). Albarado, also a Sigma Delta Chi Foundation board member, served as SPJ national president from 2012 to 2013.
The Arkansas Pro Chapter annually presents the Diamond Journalism Awards, open to students and professional journalists in Arkansas and regions of Oklahoma, Missouri, Tennessee, and Louisiana. Along with the Robert S. McCord Award, Diamond Journalism Awards include Diamond Journalist of the Year and Outstanding New Journalist. Each year, the chapter also presents a scholarship to at least one college student studying in journalism or a related field.
For additional information:
Arkansas Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. http://www.arkansasspj.org (accessed April 7, 2021).
Arkansas Pro Chapter
Little Rock, Arkansas
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